CD Review: Watchmen

By • March 9, 2009

Composer: Tyler Bates / Various Artists
Label: Reprise
Suggested Retail Price: $12.99 / $ 9.99
Grade: A

Being a live-action superhero used to be fun. Superman flew to the patriotic brass of John Williams while Batman swung about TV with the aid of Neil Hefti’s Shagadelic jazz, all while James Horner propelled The Rocketeer with a nostalgically soaring orchestra. But whomever the do-gooder, their music had an elating sense of right and wrong. Then comic books themselves had to muck up that innocence by unhinging Batman in THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, a twisted spirit that flowed into Danny Elfman’s movie score for BATMAN. Soon, nearly every superhero soundtrack was playing in moral shades of grey, whether it was John Ottman’s emotionally conflicted score for X-MEN UNITED or Han Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s pulsating nihilism in BATMAN BEGINS.

Nowadays you can barely get away with feeling good about saving the world. But in an age when Wolverine and The Punisher rejoice in being one step removed from their villains, WATCHMEN has finally arrived to show that anti-hero movies (and their soundtracks) can be darker than dark, without being dull. Based on the second-biggest graphic novel (i.e. comic book) to revolutionize the industry, these dysfunctional superheroes come roaring to movie life in a way that’s equally seditious, especially with the accompaniment of Tyler Bates’ score and numerous, incredibly well-chosen source cues- all of which gets across WATCHMEN’s setting in a bleak, Nixon-ruled 1980’s where “99 Luftballoons” mixes with acid rock, choral Armageddon and a use of Nat King Cole that’s violently “Unforgettable.”

When many tunes are haphazardly thrown into a soundtrack with more care given to album sales then their emotional effect on said picture, WATCHMEN’s use of “source” music is truly inspired, right from The Comedian’s pummeling to that sultry Cole classic. Doubtless Nat never began to imagine his music accompanying a slo-mo thrashing, and probably few listeners would as well. The effect is jarring, telling you straight off that this movie will be making ultra-ironic, in-your-face choices. Yet “Unforgettable” makes absolute sense in setting up the picture’s doom-laden atmosphere, especially in the death of a boozed-up psychopath who used his swaggering charm as a lethal weapon- and is now having it handed right back to him.

With a storyline starting in the 1940’s, Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are-A-Changin’” brilliantly states that WATCHMEN is taking place in the real world, as the balladeer’s classic song of lost innocence sets up the intermingling of “masks” with historical figures and events, turning super hero-ing into ersatz celebrity. With such other 1960’s chestnuts as “The Sound of Silence,” “All Along the Watchtower,” and “Me & Bobby McGee,” WATCHMEN also hears vigilantism as its own counter-culture, while the smoky, if romantic fatalism of their banned actions takes on film noir form with Billie Holiday’s “You’re My Thrill,” Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and Nina Simone’s “Pirate Jenny.” The irony continues in the 70’s funk of “I’m Your Boogie Man,” while “Ride of the Valkyries” does a humorous spin on APOCALYPSE NOW, as Wagner’s greatest hit is accompanying Dr. Manhattan’s ennui-ridden annihilation of the Vietcong. About the only song that’s thrown in here is My Chemical Romance’s “Desolation Row,” the kind of lackluster power rock ballad that serves as the “hit” song for far lesser films than WATCHMEN. It’s too bad that The Smashing Pumpkins’ “The End is the Beginning is the End” from the WATCHMEN trailer couldn’t have been included, as it captured the mystical, doom-ridden feeling of the film, even if it was originally on the BATMAN & ROBIN soundtrack.

But probably no songs on this WATCHMEN album achieve the nirvana of image and sound like Philip Glass’ “Pruit Igoe” and “Prophecies.” First used in KOYAANISQATSI, Glass’ trademarked rhythms accompany the origin of Dr. Manhattan, a nice-guy nuclear scientist who’s transformed into a naked blue god with the help of escalating themes for organ, voice and religioso orchestra. It’s a sound that itself becomes the voice of a fate-driven universe, ticking down to the moment to Manhattan’ cosmic rebirth. Not only does this music elevate man to godhood, but the portentous sound convinces you of the cinematic greatness at hand in this transfixing sequence- the best among WATCHMEN’s many standout moments.

It’s easy for a composer to make a quick impression when he’s given lackluster songs to accompany. But with WATCHMEN’s tunes given such well-chosen prominence, the task of Tyler Bates to match the likes of Dylan and Glass are daunting to say the least, not to mention the even more formidable job of finding a sound that’s uniquely “Watchmen”-esque. But leave it to director Zack Snyder to bring out Bates’ best work. Having created an onslaught of horrific samples in DAWN OF THE DEAD and the rocking Spartan action of 300,

In the WATCHMEN score CD, Bates comes through again for Snyder with a score that’s all over the stylistic map in the coolest way. The elements of a “traditional” superhero scoring might be here, especially as the swirling triumph of guitar percussion and voices accompany the sexually invigorating “Rescue Mission’ of Night Owl and the Silk Specter. Or it can be heard in the percussive voice and beautifully bombastic orchestra of “Silk Specter.” But those cues are about as close as you’ll get to something feel-good here. For these heroes are fraught with doubt and anger, the most palpable rage being heard in the music of the masked Rorschach in “Tonight the Comedian Died,” “I’ll Tell You about Rorschach” and “Only Two Names Remain,” cues whose spine-chilling samples and detuned chords are a close cousin to Bates’ equally psychotic music for Michael Meyers in Rob Zombie’s HALLOWEEN redo.

With so many characters to cover, Rorschach gets the most identifiable sound. For the most part, Bates is dealing with mood-driven action, from the sorrowful melodies of “Don’t Get Too Misty-Eyed” and “The Last Laugh.” to the ethereal tonalities of “We’ll Live Longer,” You’ll Quit!” and “Edward Blake- The Comedian,” dreamy music whose acid rock tonalities neatly recall such 80’s favorites as Tangerine Dream and Vangelis. A sharp, percolating rock vibe fills “Only Two Names Remain,” while metal guitar kicks out the jams for the bone-crunching action of “Prison Fight,” an exhilarating exercise in speed-metal violence. The Comedian gets a somber patriotic send-off with “The American Dream,” while Dr. Manhattan is treated with an appropriately omniscient chorus and orchestra in “Just Look Around” while anger brings him down to Earth with the growing, tense realization of “What About Janie Slater,” a cue that also neatly plays through the brutal, if turn-on crime fighting of Night Owl and The Silk Specter.

The thrill of WATCHMEN is that Tyler Bates freely lets all of these instrumental elements cross-pollinate one cue to the next. Yet all roads lead to a climactic apocalypse, with the rising orchestra and voices of “It Was Me” providing a roadmap of the erstwhile villain’s master plan. Bates then lets his more musically traditional cards come together for “Countdown,” as voices and orchestra rising with impending doom, then peak right before annihilation. Bates brings us back to the more meditative rock tone of “All That is Good,” music that sums up the Watchmen’s bittersweet recognition at the cost of saving the world. It’s a coolly subtle way of playing unimaginable emotion that’s taken over by symphonic anguish, serving as yet another example of how well Tyler Bates goes against the action movie vein here- capping it off with no less than Mozart’s “Requiem.” And if it’s all meant anything for these characters, Bates concludes with the sweet guitar groove of “I Love You,” a ballad-like ending that sums up the composer’s way of twisting an 80’s specific sound through a post-ironic looking glass.

Peering through that darkness can be a very cool thing, especially when that music helps us see a superhero’s humanity with more varying shades of the grey, even if that grey still continues to encompass them all. For whether it be through a song’s lyrics, or the mélange of Tyler Bates’ underscore approaches, the two WATCHMEN albums serve as an invigorating one-two punch to the face of compliant antihero-superhero genre. And getting bitch-slapped by that bad-good guy has never sounded so good.

Tune into the WATCHMEN song CD here, then score with the anti-heroes here

Comments

By coffee on March 14th, 2009 at 2:03 am

I loved they way they bridged different generations throughout the movie, both with props (like the floppy discs) and with music

By Joel on March 24th, 2009 at 9:50 pm

The Requiem heard at the end was composed by Mozart (just before his death) – NOT Beethoven. I don’t think Beethoven wrote a “Requiem.”

By David on September 28th, 2009 at 9:41 pm

Bates’s score is great, I’m sick of all the bashing to this overrated composer. Screw Goldenthal, Bates’s version of Victorius Titus and Finale is much better.

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